What fixes nature?

Part of the obscurity of value ontology lies in the fact that it is not clear what fixes the truth of moral claims. Values are unlike other material things. They compel us even maybe while we might desire otherwise. Or maybe not. I’ve been swimming in this problem for quite some time.

But today, I do not want to discuss values. I want to push a little further and ask what fixes experience of objects. Let’s call the set of all objects, nature. According to James, we should remain humble before experience in general, even objects. Now, clearly James thinks that purpose can impose upon texture and meaning onto experience, and this imposition of purpose can alter the meaning of objects. Various conceivable effects of the object can be experienced. I may experience the buffalo as a biological animal, provider of sustenance, as manifestation of natural spirit, or as both a provider of nourishment and a provider of sinew for bowstring. In this way, radical empiricism, like phenomenology, talks about how experience itself is connected to every transition of how the buffalo can or will appear as having “meaning for us”. As James puts it, if we experience the object as efficaciously real, then it is real as such.

Added to the above is that no one single person’s experience (or interpretation of it) can determine how objects and their conceivable effect will be for everyone else. For James, pluralism implies the widest possible big tent interpretation of experience, requiring what we might call a radical democratic and epistemic openness. Instead, we should be humble about the range of possible experiences and be open that our experience of objects can never be of the whole. Our experience or a claims are made of objects, but not the whole. Reality is felt, perceived, judged, and explored in snippets.

Given these conditions, James is skeptical about knowing what fixes nature, and the fixivity in nature is a key assumption many help themselves to. It gets people the metaphysics of independence. As Hume implied, continuity implies independence. If an object can be experienced in its materiality by all of us over time, then we can posit a realist property possessed by the object. The stark realization is that the independence and materiality of objects is an assumption, one among many, and to be fair, an assumption that while taken on pragmatic grounds, cannot for the Jamesian be proven absolutely. In fact, by my own Jamesian commitments, I cannot absolutize any metaphysical commitment about objects (this is the reason that James is the least dogmatic of all the pragmatists and the one that gave the richest interpretation of religion in human experience). I do not even know if there is  some structure that fixes nature. I can only tell you what the science we have at the time tells us what we might think fixes nature and that it really helps scientific inquiry to think such structures persist through time. As such one version of speculative realism may be right, or again none of them, but I am hardly in a position to know. The Buddhist may be right about interdependent co-arising about objects. Then again, maybe not.

The only thing I have access to is the relational aspect of experience and the purpose I am directed towards by my own choosing and I can assess the purpose of others and their beliefs. Within experience, I have the freedom to experiment and explore, but as Dewey firmly showed better than James, such exploration and freedom can impact others in our community.


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